If there’s one rule that should be obvious for maintaining a healthy marriage, it’s probably this: don’t pen an op-ed in the New York Times berating your husband for his shortcomings, no matter how strongly you feel he isn’t holding up his end of the marital bargain. Unfortunately, the author of a recent “Modern Love” column seems to have missed this memo.
The author, Brooke Williams, a public relations professional with two children, castigates her husband’s tendency to loudly announce his contributions each time he completes a household task, claiming he’s underhandedly working to “define his brand” in the marriage such that he’s unassailable in future fights over division of household labor and child care.
Despite a happy “egalitarian” division of labor pre-children, they now find themselves in the same conundrum facing countless couples, and clearly, according to Williams, her husband’s loud pronouncements are a sign that he’s determined to keep the upper hand, even though she thinks far more of life’s daily drudgery falls to her. Williams’ mindset is so focused on attacking her husband’s motives and preserving her ability to win future arguments that the series would be more aptly titled “Modern War.”
Quest to Have It All Yields Nothing
Modern love supposedly means “having it all,” and for too many marriage becomes a competition. After all, having “it all” means defining what “it all” means. For that, we’ve been told, we must look outward. We’re to look to men, and who is closer to us than the man sharing our bed? So we keep score, creating a zero-sum game over laundry cycles and dishes. But when love is zero sum, there are no winners, and in the end, no fulfillment, just exhaustion.
We need to stop and ask why we’re doing this. Are we ladies stronger as a sex for having transitioned society from the old staple, “Take my wife, please” to endless litanies expounding the toll of our maternal mental load? Or did we seek to have it all because we wanted satisfying relationships, rewarding careers, and maternal bliss? Because if it’s the latter, building resentments rather than rectifying a frustrating imbalance of duties certainly won’t get us there.
Instead of seeing our partners as opponents to outmaneuver, we should start by remembering they are not just people, but the persons we profess to love and care about more than anyone else. They are the ones we claim we want to build a life with.
But you can’t add to a foundation if everything is zero sum. It’s therefore less important that you figure out how to create the exact right distribution of labor than it is to figure out how to communicate about that distribution, both in the heated moments and when heads are cooler later.
Try Communicating to Your Husband, Not the Public
How do you build the base for effective communication? It starts by communicating with each other instead of venting to those around us. Sure, it’s tempting to unload our frustrations to our friends, sharing the ways we feel our partner is letting us down. But is that fair to the one we love?
Complaint sessions focused on your partner’s negative traits only magnify them in your mind and provide incentive for those around you to pile on. It brings the worst to the fore, all while your significant other isn’t there to defend himself or hear you out.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have outside counsel for our relationships. Friendships and mentorships are essential, and we all need connection and advice from those we trust. But it’s important to keep any serious conversations about your feelings focused on fixing the problem rather than indulging in tearing down the person you love most. And these advice-seeking conversations should only happen in concert with active discussions with your partner.
Even more important than keeping your dirty laundry to yourself, a healthy marriage requires knowing when your laundry is truly dirty. It’s easy in the moment to assume the worst from your partner. But assuming ill intent gets you nowhere and does an injustice to your relationship’s history.
Instead, actively choose to assume good intentions. Perhaps her husband isn’t trying to “brand himself” in the relationship. Perhaps his love language is “words of affirmation,” and he’s just seeking a little love. Every behavior can have myriad explanations. Start with the one that assumes the best about your partner, and go from there.
Love Means Assuming He Means Well
Marriage tests come for us all, but choosing to believe your partner is acting in good faith helps make any test passable. My husband and I have three kids, one each from a previous marriage and a newborn daughter. To say that certain moments can be tough would be an understatement. Between scouting, baseball, ballet, schoolwork, housework, diapers, careers, and dinner, it’s easy to feel as if each of us is unraveling. Add in sleep deprivation, and it can be a perfect storm.
But when I feel resentment bubble up that he’s working on the roof on a Saturday when I need a break from the (frequently fussy) baby, do I assume he’s hiding away, shirking his role in caring for the screaming infant? Should I let the anger fester over the course of the months or years, waiting for him to pinpoint my annoyance?
Of course not. We (gasp) talk it out. Williams romanticizes her marriage pre-parenthood, and though we came into ours with older kids, pre-baby certainly felt different for us as well. But I know my husband doesn’t suddenly love me less now that our daughter is born. His behavior is driven from a desire to contribute and take responsibility, even if it turns out something different would be better for my sanity in that moment. He is, after all, the same man who checks our kids’ homework while bouncing the baby in the evening so I can make dinner.
Once I make the conscious decision to remember that he does in fact cherish and appreciate me, a conversation around our individual needs suddenly becomes much easier. Sometimes I have to give and sometimes he does, but assuming good intentions keeps the much-needed respect and patience alive.
Don’t Compete, Complete
These two behavioral shifts help create a positive cycle for any relationship. Without them, it’s far too easy to start giving in to the number one marriage killer: contempt for your partner. If everything is a competition, it’s only natural to start resenting the person you think is constantly beating you.
Take the author’s own words: “By consistently claiming credit for everything he did, he was dominating the dialogue in our new domestic world order and positioning himself as the winner in the ‘who is doing more’ fight … By the time I figured this out, he had already captured a significant amount of brand mind share.”
What the author fails to see is it’s not you or me, it’s us. Yes, we’re different people with different standards, opinions, and goals. But the point of a marriage is to build each other up through compromise and understanding. What does your partner need, and what do you need, and how can you as a couple work to get there?
It starts with healthy habits, cultivated through good times and bad. There isn’t some mythical amount of brand share in a healthy relationship. There’s an endless amount of room where love and respect can grow. I hope my positive “brand” is ever increasing with my husband. His certainly is with me. And we build on that, with constant praise small and large, and by seeing through any irritation to the person we love.